The Role of Unions in Cuba

Yusimi Rodriguez

CTC Union Federation President Salvador Valdes Mesa. Foto:

HAVANA TIMES, March 24 — For years I’ve worked hard to understand the role of trade unions, at least those here in Cuba. In history classes they taught us that these had emerged as vehicles for workers to stand up against factory owners and companies.

I assumed that membership was voluntary here as one of our rights as workers, but my perception began to change in 1998, during my senior year in college.

When I reached my fourth year of the bachelors of education program, where I was specializing in English, I had two great ambitions: the first was to pass, of course, if possible with an A or a B average; and the second was to be taught by a certain teacher I’ll call “Professor N.”

He taught English grammar and was so well liked that students used to try to transfer into his class to have him as their teacher.

I had a lot of stellar teachers during my school years, but this individual was indeed one of a kind. It wasn’t only his colleagues and students who would say that; he was also recognized by exchange teachers from the United States and Canada. They described him as “the greatest.”

This teacher, who never missed a class, refused a number of jobs that paid more than what he received as an English grammar professor at the language faculty. What he was passionate about was teaching. He would spend all the time it took to explain something when a student had a question – and he could answer any question. He was known among the students and teachers as “Mr. Webster,” but he didn’t belong to the union.

Trabajadores cubanos.

One day he had decided that the union didn’t do anything except take his money, and from that moment on he ceased getting the best professional evaluation at the end of the year – despite him still being the best teacher on the faculty.

When I started working as an English teacher in a technical institute, the union secretary came to put me on the list of members. I asked — half jokingly — if that was required. The secretary didn’t respond; this person just gawked at me in amazement. Later my department head told me that if I didn’t join, it could influence my final evaluation.

Years later, while working at a newspaper after having completed my probationary period, I was “invited” to join the union. No one ever told me that it was required.

Like my Professor N., I always felt that the union didn’t do anything except take my money. But unlike him, it has always been hard for me to swim against the current. I ended up being a union member the entire time I was employed as a full-time government worker.

I think the problem in Cuba is that we don’t understand the meaning of the word “voluntary,” either that or our dictionaries are outdated. Then too, maybe the Royal Spanish Language Academy needs to create a special dictionary specifically for our country.

The University of Havana.

It’s not required to participate in “voluntary labor” organized by your neighborhood CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution). The word would seem to indicate just that – that it’s voluntary. But if you apply for any job, a background check will be done on you through that same CDR.

Voting is “voluntary”; it’s a civil right. But if you don’t go to the polls, someone will come to your house to remind you that you haven’t exercised that right.

Union membership is also “voluntary.” But if you’re not a member, don’t expect a high professional evaluation. This isn’t subjective; payment of union dues is included among the points that are received in each worker’s evaluation.

A year ago, when they announced the impending “rationalization of work positions” (meaning the planned lay off of masses of government workers), the Cuban Confederation of Workers (CTC) called on its members to support that measure. This made me think: “With a union like this, who needs an oppressor.”

So then, what really is the function of a union in Cuba?

On Monday, March 19, the Granma newspaper printed an article entitled “Financial Management to Be Focus of Discussions at National CTC Conference.” And how does this article begin? It starts with a call for workers to focus on how they can comply with the government’s plans and budgets, month by month.

But who raised this call? Not the union. It was no one other than the vice president of the Council of State, Esteban Lazo Hernandez, who’s also a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party.

Photo: Bill Hackwell

Is it a coincidence that the CTC General Secretary, Salvador Valdes Mesa, is also a member of the Politburo? Is it also a coincidence that one of the important documents adopted by the CTC consisted of the work objectives for the union movement that were handed down from the First National Conference of the Communist Party in January?

What’s more, the thrust of those objectives is to mobilize workers to meet the social and economic goals outlined at the Sixth Party Congress last April.

This all makes one ask whether the union’s role is to represent the interests of workers or to meet the objectives of the party?

And what happens if those objectives are in conflict with the interests of workers?

Oops, I forgot – we already saw what happened when the union came out in support of the party’s plan for massive layoffs of hundreds of thousands of government workers.

Over the years that I had a full-time job, I didn’t understand why it was mandatory to join the union. How did the exercise of my right to be unionized affect my capacity as a worker? Why did my payment of union dues have to be among the guidelines used in my work evaluation?

Now I can see that everything is the same: the government, the union and the party – they’re all one. And since everything is run by the party, I think I understand why it’s required for everyone to join the union, though still no one will ever say it to my face.

Incidentally, my fourth year at the university was Professor N’s last one…at least at my school. He gave us an explanation before leaving. So as not to bore you, the readers, what he said, in short, was that he was tired. I think though that it was us, his students, who felt his absence the most.


2 thoughts on “The Role of Unions in Cuba

  • I suppose a liberal response might be that joining the union *is* voluntary, and that it affects your career opportunities is not unfair. Why should an organisation not base their assessment of you on qualities of their choosing? In most liberal countries companies will do their best to avoid employing those who *are* members of unions. To a capitalist, union membership means a worker who seeks to destabilise your production. To a socialist, union membership highlights solidarity and comradeship. I can see why employers would like to weave membership or non-membership into an assessment of their staff.

    You raise a good point about the function of the union in a communist society but if the community haven’t started to ask these questions yet and still wonder if people are freeloaders or anti-worker movement when they refuse to sign up to the union that doesn’t make union membership a repressive state tax.

  • Under capitalism, trade unions are “defensive” organizations. If they are not in place, workers will usually be humiliated and oppressed more thoroughly that they otherwise would be. What has happened over the decades is that unions have become a fetish on the socialist Left, and better union contracts have become the goal of Marxists working within the unions.

    This has resulted in many temporary gains for workers. Since legal, cooperative ownership of work enterprises was never the primary goal however, these gains have ultimately been severely eroded or wiped out by modern-day, neo-liberal monopoly capitalism.

    Under socialism, by contrast, trade unions are supposed to be “offensive” organizations. Their proper goal is supposed to be the aggressive promotion of the near- and long-term interests of the workers, pending evolution to direct cooperative co-ownership with each other and the silent, non-controlling state.

    By socialism being misconceived as the state owning all or almost all of the instruments of production however, the trade unions have always ended up being the direct agent of the workers’ new employer, the one-party socialist state. Wage labor has persisted, and the leading parties have never noticed that this is the prime indicator of an exploitative economic system.

    What this reveals is that workplace democracy and workers’ self-management cannot come about under the state monopoly mis-concept of socialism, because the legal owner of the workplace always calls the shots. Under the Marxian misconcept, it make perfect sense that the state, party and the unions are all one entity, as Yusimi says in her article, with the political party being the leading element.

    Under a modern cooperative, state co-ownership form of socialism however, the workers would come into primary legal ownership of most industry and commerce. Workers would self-manage according to the national plan and the conditioned socialist market, and be rewarded or punished for their business performance. There would be no union dues because workers would run their enterprises democratically and potently, and unions would not be needed.

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